Matthew Hancock is the Member of Parliament for West Suffolk. Follow Matt on Twitter.
“It’s not fair!” is often one of the first sentences a child learns. The vital role of fairness is embedded deeply in each of us. Injustice, and the battle for fairness has driven people into politics down the ages. Sometimes, in striving for a fairer system, we very naturally react to very specific, individual examples of unfairness. So it is with the changes to legal aid being put forward by the Government. Some argue that the changes to legal aid are a managerial change, started by Labour and taken forward by the Coalition. It’s true that the reforms were initiated by Jack Straw. But they are more than technical.
Others point to specific examples of their perceived effects, and argue it is always and everywhere wrong to limit anyone’s access to the very best-paid lawyer. But these objections miss the broader point, made acutely visible by the cuts: it is not just good economics, but a moral duty of government to get as much value as possible out of every penny of taxpayers’ money. Otherwise the money should be spent elsewhere or not taken in tax. Britain has the most expensive legal aid budget in the world. The £2.1bn we spend each year – £39 per head – is more than would be raised by a mansion tax, and more than twice the cost of second-placed New Zealand, at £18 a head. The current legal aid system manifestly fails to balance fairness to victims with fairness to taxpayers. The reforms redress that imbalance. That is what makes the reforms fair. Why?
First, because lawyers are too expensive. Like the rest of society, lawyers need to do more for less. Legal aid lawyers are among the best paid public servants in the land. Routinely, they earn over half a million pounds a year, with some topping £1 million of taxpayers’ money. Legal companies are netting millions for fighting immigration cases, planning application cases and even prisoners’ cases. Second, because of where the aid has been directed – or rather, in many cases, misdirected. Britain’s legal aid bill was originally intended to provide financial help for those who cannot afford lawyers’ fees. But just as Labour allowed our benefits system to become open to widespread abuse, so too legal aid ended up being spent on legal action that has been far from essential.
The whole country was shocked to discover MPs convicted of defrauding the taxpayer through the expenses system used yet more taxpayers’ money through legal aid to argue that they should be immune from prosecution. Those culpable for the Hatfield rail crash claimed back more in legal aid than they had to pay in compensation. Parents even claimed legal aid to challenge Local Authority decisions on their childrens’ school places. The list goes on. Of course, people must have access to public money for legal assistance. We should support those denied representation simply because of their inability to pay. But it is wrong that something set up to help the vulnerable has instead been lining lawyers’ pockets and become so open to abuse – all at the expense of an extremely stretched public purse. So things clearly need to change.
We can start by cutting bureaucracy, speeding up the legal process and helping people to avoid resorting to court unless they absolutely have to. The outrageous sight of squatters getting legal aid will end; there will be no more funding for endless appeals of immigration decisions; and instead funding for mediation will be increased to encourage people where possible to resolve their disputes outside court.
Meanwhile strong safeguards must be put in place. Every reasonable person would agree that legal aid should continue to be available where someone is at risk of serious violence or losing their liberty or their home, or where children may be taken into care. Cases involving domestic violence, child abuse or forced marriage must still trigger legal aid funding. Under the proposed reforms these are protected, and there is a further guarantee: there is no blanket exclusion from legal aid, with an exceptional scheme existing for particularly complex cases.
As in the welfare system, we must protect the vulnerable while delivering better value for money. I don’t want to see anyone who genuinely needs help with their court costs being denied their right to justice. But fairness demands fairness to the taxpayer too. That way we will get a justice system that is just. People should get the help they need, taxpayers should get the value they deserve, and Britain should have a justice system which is just.